10 Red Flags of Junk Science (and Bogus Diets)

By , SparkPeople Blogger

One day you hear that a certain food, supplement, or diet is good for you, the next day you hear the opposite. According to survey results shared by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), one in five people reported being confused by news reports that give dietary advice. Can you blame them?

Most people don't have access to the professional journals that publish these studies, so the average person relies on secondary sources (newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs and other media outlets) that interpret, condense and report on the studies in a more consumer-friendly way. Trouble is, research is hard to interpret. Ten people could look at one study and come away with 10 different takeaways. And even the best reporters and bloggers can get it wrong, especially under tight deadlines or pressure to write an eye-catching story that will sell papers or garner more views.
Mundane news becomes sensationalized to get viewers and readers. Results are often spun to feed the writer's or organization's own interests. And vital details like who funded the research (conflict of interest), how it was designed, or how well controlled it (or not) was often go unmentioned.
But it's important that we all become better consumers of health information—and read any news story with a discerning eye. Because what you read—and believe—based on these reports affects your behaviors, which in turn affect your health.
So the Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA), a partnership of the ADA, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Nutritional Sciences and the Institute of Food Technologists, developed the Ten Red Flags of Junk Science to help people recognize nutrition misinformation. Remember these points next time you read the latest news on weight loss or nutrition.
The 10 Red Flags of Junk Science, sourced from FANSA:
  1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex scientific study.
  5. Recommendations [to change your behavior or diet] based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  8. Recommendations made to help sell a product. [HCG injections, anyone?]
  9. Recommendations based on studies published without peer review.
  10. Recommendations from studies that ignore difficulties among individuals or groups.
These days I bring a healthy dose of skepticism with me when I read about any health study—especially when it comes to nutrition or weight loss, and especially if it's trying to promote any kind of product. Nutrition, diet-related and supplement-related studies are by far the hardest to really conduct because you can't really control what people eat or do, and most involve self-reporting, which is known to be full of error and mistakes.
In addition to remembering these red flags, here are a few I'd add:
  1. Consider the source—especially if you stumble upon a web page when Googling for information. Who wrote this information? Are they a credible source? Often trade groups (think the Corn Refiners Association or supplement makers/distributors) create web pages and official sounding "organizations" to try to fool consumers and spread self-serving propaganda. Look for an "about us" on any new website you find to see who is really behind an organization. If there isn't any information about that, beware…

  2. Look for references. Many stories or websites make statements and present them as facts, but fail to disclose the source of that information. Find another outlet that does disclose their references, and don't be afraid to look at those, too.

  3. Find out who funded it. I recently saw a news story that claimed teen girls who eat MORE "low-fat desserts" (i.e. packaged diet desserts) lose more weight than teen girls who eat regular desserts. Big red flags went off in my head on that one, as it seemed like a study designed and/or funded by a snack food manufacturer. When I looked for the fine print, that is exactly what I discovered! Not only did a snack food manufacturer fund the study, they also provided free products to the study participants—major red flags for conflict of interest that certainly affected the outcome and the press releases about the study, no doubt.
The old adage, "You can't believe everything you read," still rings true today, especially in this Internet age. Be smart. Be skeptical. And be discerning about your sources of news. Choose reliable and reputable sources for your health information, and you'll be better informed—and healthier!

More Tips for Consumers
12 Ways to Spot a Fad Diet
How to Get Ripped Off—Guaranteed!
10 Signs a Fitness Gadget is a Gimmick

Do you think these red flags ring true? What are your trusted sources for health information?